Last year, it was clear, according to Mack Brown, what UNC’s best position group was: its running backs. Now, after the loss of Antonio Williams, that group is still strong, but that plus the emergence of another group on the offense have made the answer to that question less clear. That position group, of course, is UNC’s wide receivers, who exploded onto the scene last year alongside Sam Howell and resulted in UNC’s first season with two 1,000-yard wide receivers, among a ton of other accolades that don’t need rehashing. The most exciting thing, of course, is that pretty much all that production is coming back, and with a full year of experience and chemistry, expectations for this group are justifiably through the roof. Let’s take a closer look at what UNC and Sam Howell have to play with this year:
Of the 15 players to catch at least one of the 265 passes that UNC completed last year, 4 players (and 12 catches) are gone: Antonio Williams (2 catches, 4 yards), a running back; wide receiver Roscoe Johnson (2 catches, 39 yards, grad transferred to Louisville); and tight ends Carl Tucker (5 catches, 54 yards, one touchdown, grad transferred to Alabama) and Jake Bargas (3 catches, 15 yards, one touchdown, graduated and trying to make the Minnesota Vikings’ roster). Of those, Tucker is probably the player who will be missed most; when injuries weren’t sidelining him he was a beast of a blocker, a good route-runner, and a safe catcher. It’s not surprising that Nick Saban was willing to take him on. Johnson’s got burner speed that isn’t really a factor in the current corps, but he didn’t add enough to the roster to see extended time last year. Bargas made some big plays for the Heels, but was mostly a replacement-level tight end, and Williams, of course, is a running back.
Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown
Slot receiver extraordinaire Newsome (72 catches, 1018 yards, 10 touchdowns) and dynamic vertical threat Brown (51 catches, 1034 yards, 12 touchdowns) both return for the Heels to build on their incredible first season with Sam Howell and Phil Longo’s offense. Both are very, very good college wide receivers in different ways: Newsome excels at creating space at all levels with his route running and footwork, wins at the catch point more often than a receiver his size should, and accelerates to top speed at the flip of a switch, making him a consistent YAC threat. He’s also extremely clutch, routinely coming up with catches on money downs and late in close games. Brown, meanwhile, has the best double move in college football and knows how to get open deep without having Newsome’s route-running nuance or acceleration thanks to his long speed and ability to stack cornerbacks by playing with their leverage — and has the ball-tracking skills to pay it off. He’s also strong at the catch point — though not as much as Newsome — and can run through arm tackles thanks to his stout build, and excels at making tough catches. Where both will aim to improve this season is with their hands, because both had very high drop rates (about 10% for each) despite not having unnatural hands. With Newsome, it’s understandable because this was his first season playing with corrected vision after a decade of playing football without knowing he needed glasses, and hopefully he’ll have learned how to look the ball in rather than relying on reps to get his hands where they need to be. Brown just needs reps. In both cases, they’re legitimate NFL talents who just need to catch the ball a little more consistently to be superstars at the college level.
Beau Corrales, Antoine Green, Rontavius Groves, and Garrett Walston
Most of the rest of UNC’s receiving production came from this quartet, each of whom played a different role. Walston (9 catches, 76 yards, one touchdown) secured the tight end spot after Carl Tucker went down to injury for a couple of games and held on to it for the rest of the season, coming up with a few timely catches throughout the season including a nifty touchdown. He’s a serviceable tight end and should be relied on for a few security-blanket catches when Newsome draws extra attention on money downs, but probably isn’t in line for a breakout. Corrales (40 catches, 575 yards, 6 touchdowns) may be the favorite among wide receivers to start out the season on the outside opposite Brown; he’s got the experience and production to justify it. At 6’3 with fantastic strength, ball awareness, and leaping ability, he’s UNC’s best jump-ball threat and probably the only Tar Heel who makes the goal-line fade a good play — he’s reminiscent of Bug Howard in that way. He isn’t a phenomenal route-runner or speedster to get consistently open between the 20’s, but he’s a great college possession receiver who has a role to play in this offense. Green (8 catches, 217 yards, 2 touchdowns) might have the most potential of all of UNC’s receivers; if fully healthy he’s 6’3 with 4.4 speed, quick feet, and great hops — he’s been advertised as a recevier who can do it all and do it well, and just needs enough practice to get past the injuries that sidelined him his first two years. If he does, don’t be surprised to see him take the 3rd receiver’s starting spot early on. And Groves (27 catches, 250 yards, 1 touchdown) is mostly a Newsome-lite: he doesn’t have quite the space creating acumen from the slot that Newsome does, but that 4th and 17 against Miami tells you he’s got plenty, and a clutch factor to boot. If he’s fully healthy, he can be a situational threat.
Emery Simmons and Kamari Morales
Simmons (4 catches, 72 yards, 1 touchdown, redshirted) was one of the highlights of the 2019 recruiting class, tearing up the camp circuit late in his recruitment en route to a 4-star ranking and a brief flirtation with Penn State while committed to UNC. He showed why he got those rankings in late-season mop-up time last year, getting open at will on limited snaps, and could threaten for regular snaps at outside receiver this year - he’s got the size and athleticism for it. Morales (one catch, 9 yards, redshirted) is in line to start the season backing up Walston at tight end, and offers a little more dynamism than Walston does. If he’s learned the position between last season and this one, he could start soon and be a real option for regular targets in the middle of the field.
UNC brings in three big-time receivers in the class of 2020: Tylee Craft, Ray Rose, and Josh Downs. Craft is a big, straight-line fast receiver in the mold of Mack Hollins, and if he gets some refinement to his game, he’s going to be a problem. Rose is kind of a short possession receiver, he’s got sticky hands and plays the game smart but doesn’t really stand out physically - he’s going to need some time training before being really ready to play. And Downs is a superstar in the making, by all accounts: he rose meteorically in recruiting rankings towards the end of his college career and has been repeatedly called unguardable from the slot. He’s said to be the most likely newcomer to get early snaps on the offensive end, even though he’s got Dazz Newsome in front of him, because he’s already one of the quickest-twitch and explosive route runners on the roster.
Stephen Gosnell is also a true freshman who might outplay his ranking at wide receiver, he’s got the body but being from a small high school hurt his visibility. He’s gotten good reviews after enrolling early. His high school teammate Jefferson Boaz (who will likely change positions from quarterback) and tight end prospects John Copenhaver and Kendall Karr round out the group of newcomers, all of whom probably need some time to get conditioned for the college game.
Redshirt freshman Justin Olson didn’t see playing time last year but has gotten good offseason reviews, and Dyami Brown’s little brother Khafre in the same class used to be a speed demon before a devastating injury in high school set him back a few years — he could surprise us and add a dimension the receivers’ room doesn’t really have.
Between Dyami Brown, Newsome, Corrales, Simmons and Downs, this roster runs at least five deep with high-level college football talent at wide receiver, and that’s not even adding in Green and Groves (post-injury) or any of the less-heralded newcomers. With all that, Mack Brown, Phil Longo, and/or Lonnie Galloway have to have one of the best and deepest wide receiver rooms in the country, and they’ve got the quarterback to take advantage of them in Sam Howell. The real question is if the unit can clean up its concentration drops problem, which extended past Newsome and Brown into the whole roster. Even with it, they’d be primed in a normal season to repeat and better last year’s season of over 3,100 yards and 32 touchdowns (that was in 13 games, so adjusted for 11 games that’s 2600 and 27) from the position group, and that’s a scary proposition. Without it, the sky is the limit, and the only real question is how all that production is going to be distributed. The tight end position will have a new coach this year, John Lilly, and the position already didn’t have a ton of production in Phil Longo’s offense, so expectations are more muted there. Still, Mack Brown’s on record saying he wanted to get tight ends more involved, so maybe things will change and we’ll see a catch or two a game from the big guys up the middle. Overall, though, the Heels have the chance to be one of the country’s premier passing attacks, and after Howell, these guys are the key to why.